GOP Senator Wants To Use The Census To Track Immigrants And Strip Them Of Federal Benefits

The move would be unconstitutional and compromise vital Census data.
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Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) has put forward legislation that would require the U.S. Census -- for the first time in American history -- to identify non-U.S. citizens.

The two-term senator hopes to attach an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act that would mandate the Census Bureau add two new questions to the 2020 survey. One asks whether a person is a U.S. citizen, and the second asks about the legal status of their residency. If the bureau refuses to include these questions, it would lose all its funding, according to the terms of the amendment.

Vitter, who is retiring this year, wants all non-U.S. citizens enumerated in the 2020 decennial count of the population. This way, non-U.S. citizens could be excluded from a Census count that determines the allocation of some $400 billion in yearly federal spending, as well the apportionment of U.S. representatives, which happens every 10 years.

Population data collected by the Census is used to guide a range of societal decisions. Besides the distribution of federal funds, it impacts infrastructure projects at the local, state and federal levels, and informs the building of roads, hospitals and schools so that there is sufficient infrastructure to support the entire population. The data also helps guide the reapportionment of congressional districts.

Vitter, who has proposed the same amendment two previous times, argues that it is unfair to allow non-U.S. citizens, "especially illegal aliens ... to take advantage of federal benefits that are meant for U.S. citizens."

Adding questions that filter for citizenship and legal status, Vitter hopes would allow demographers to subtract non-U.S. citizens from calculations that are used to make various economic, social and political decisions.

Opponents of the amendment, however, argue that adding these questions would be intrusive and discourage both undocumented and documented immigrants from taking the Census all together, inevitably producing false population counts that compromise the usability of census data.

Discouraging non-U.S. citizens from being counted, or excluding their count, would not mean they no longer live in the country, of course. But it would mean that public policy wouldn't take the actual population into account, which would likely cause severe infrastructure problems. It would be difficult for decision makers to execute informed plans for infrastructure development such as the short- and long-term need for new schools or hospitals in a district, as well as accompanying funding.

Opponents also argue that Vitter's amendment is a direct violation of the Constitution. In a recent press release, Howard Fienberg, the director of government affairs for the Marketing Research Association, points to the 14th Amendment, which states that the "decennial Census should count 'the whole number of persons in each state'" to determine accurate apportionment of House seats. Furthermore, he finds that there is no reference to citizenship or immigration status in the amendment.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, co-director of the Census project, says it's not the questions that are unconstitutional, but rather that "the unconstitutionality comes from trying to exclude a certain population from the apportionment base."

The amendment could be considered this week, along with a proposal being offered by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), which threatens to cut about $140 million from the Census to keep spending at the 2016 level — a move that opponents argue would derail modernization of the Census and end up costing taxpayers an additional $5 billion.

However, senators have shifted focus in the wake of the Orlando shooting to amendments on gun restrictions and are likely to forgo the Census amendments. But even if they’re not considered, it’s still possible that an amendment similar to Vitter's could be reintroduced at a later time. Senate Republicans have a history of attacking the Census.

This is not the first time Vitter has made a short-sighted attempt to track immigrants. During his failed run for governor of Louisiana in 2015, Vitter alerted the Department of Homeland Security when he discovered a Syrian refugee thought to be residing in the state was “missing.” Soon after Vitter sounded the alarm, officials confirmed that the man had filed the proper paperwork and relocated to Washington D.C. to be reunited with family.

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